Prepared to ask…

There’s been a lot in recent ‘events’ that have been lessons for managers and examples about management, good and bad.

In the end it all comes down to leadership.

Most leadership theory revolves around an assumption that people want to be led. We are led by consent.

That does not mean we have to like the leader. It just means we buy-in to what the leader wants to do and the circumstances they want to do it in.

Probably, we give our consent for three reasons; we share a vision, the alternative is too horrible, or we have no idea what to do ourselves and are happy for someone, who looks like they have a bit of an idea, to show us the way forward.

We consent to participatory leadership, enjoy charismatic leadership and admire skilful leaders.

Leaders make us feel safe, inspire us and we feel better because we trust them.

What happens when we don’t consent? Leaders are in big trouble. We feel unsafe, become critical, lose confidence and the leader becomes a figure of ridicule or pity.

To fix it… leaders have, probably, five approaches…

1. Generally, leaders stand for something.

Using Brexit, as our case study; it hasn’t helped to be in favour of something. Brexit alone is not enough. What kind of Brexit? If it cannot be defined in terms that people agree with, or at least persuaded enough to consent to, there is no possibility of leadership having any traction. We don’t know, to where we are being led.

2. Leaders can succeed by creating a coalition of the willing, building from there.

In the case of Brexit, there is no coalition. More like demolition.

3. The next trick is to reverse the leadership position.

Instead of standing and leading ‘for’ something, turn it on its head, stand ‘against’ something.

The standard narrative is; we will leave the EU by such and such time. That hasn’t washed. So, the narrative could be reversed.

Join me in the fight against staying in the EU.

We know that doesn’t work when as near-as-damn-it half the country and the majority of MPs would rather stay.

4. Focussing on what might be better.

The trade-off; by doing this, we get that… is a better proposition than… if we do this, we avoid that.

However, when pretty well all the indictors and analysts agree, in the sort term, we will be worse off and in the long-term… well, all bets are off… that doesn’t work.

5. Leaders can try and celebrate little successes, on the journey to the main goal.

In our Brexit case study there have been no ‘little successes’. No alternative trade deals of any substance. No good news. No achievements. Only setbacks.

If the five alternative approaches don’t work and the leader can’t get traction, the obvious thing to do is to hand over the role to someone who can. That’s what happened last night. But…

It hasn’t solved he problem. The critics won’t provide an alternative leader and the polls are far from clear what an election would give us, other than more confusion.

This is a very unusual set of circumstances where internal ambition, turf wars, ignorance, arrogance, truth and lies and the downright cussed have created a toxic environment, making it impossible to focus on a higher set of ambitions or values.

In all text-book cases of leadership theory the answer would be found in communication. Asking people what they think, distilling their opinions.

‘How do you think we should go about this?’

‘What is your view…?’

It would be an heroic act of leadership to say; I have tried everything I know, left no stone unturned and exhausted every opportunity, now it’s your turn. What do you think we should do and I will try and do it, if you want me to.

Divining the end of the political saga we are living through is not for me but as a case study it is instructive.

You will have your own thoughts which may unite us or divide us. What is important for us all to understand is leadership is always in the gift of the majority and…

… very few leaders fail because they are prepared to ask.

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Reproduced at by kind permission of Roy Lilley.